Dreaming spires: Victorian chimneys

3 01 2013
1. Robert Rawlinson's fantastical array of industrial chimneys as seen in The Builder, 25 April 1857, p. 23.

1. Robert Rawlinson’s fantastical array of industrial chimneys, The Builder, 25 April 1857, p. 23.

‘A tower is the creation of another century. Without a past it is nothing’ (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. 25)

In 1853, The Builder pictured industrial Manchester ‘getting up the steam’ (2) – the city’s skyline filled with an almost impossible number of chimneys belching smoke and so tall that they dwarfed even Manchester’s church spires. Sublime – even Gothic – in their blackness, these chimneys were nevertheless strictly utilitarian in appearance: identical stacks of brick attached to equally stark mill and other factory buildings. Yet, only five years later, in 1858, The Builder pictured a new vision of industrial chimneys as a dreamscape (1). Assembled by the engineer Robert Rawlinson, these fantastical designs were chimneys that mimicked historical precedents, whether medieval Italian campaniles, Moorish minarets or the more recent clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. Rawlinson believed, in common with most Victorian designers, that history gave aesthetic meaning to structural form; according to Rawlinson, instead of ‘chimney’ being a ‘by-word for hideous structures’, it should be in tune with the models of the past that ‘have stood for ages as monuments of beauty.’

2. 'Manchester, getting up the steam', The Builder, 1853.

2. ‘Manchester, getting up the steam’, The Builder, 1853.

Yet, Rawlinson’s designs do more than simply dress up chimneys in attractive disguises; rather, they draw building into a potent kind of dream. As the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard has emphasised in The Poetics of Space (1964), towers are more than simply structures; rather, they are primal images of verticality that illustrate the verticality of the human being. So, in our dreams we always go up towers (whereas we always go down into a cellar). Towers are images of ascension, the endless winding steps inside them leading to dreams of flight or transcendence. Chimneys may not in themselves be fertile dream spaces; yet, because they’re designed solely to carry polluting fumes above the city, they are almost pure images of verticality. By cloaking chimneys with images of the past, Rawlinson joins the pure vertical expression of industry with a whole succession of former dreams of ascension. He also humanises the industrial by bringing it within the compass of the verticality of the human being: people may not be able to literally ascend chimneys but, cloaked in the former dream images of bell towers and minarets, they can now do so in their imagination.

3. The Abbey Mills pumping station as seen in The Illustrated London News, 15 July 1868, p. 161.

3. The Abbey Mills pumping station as seen in The Illustrated London News, 15 July 1868, p. 161.

4. Chimney of the Edgbaston waterworks, c.1870

4. Chimney of the Edgbaston waterworks, c.1870.

There are numerous Victorian chimneys that followed Rawlinson’s example: from those that adorned the extravagant Crossness (1862-65) and Abbey Mills pumping stations (3; 1865-68) in London, to the more diminutive but no less aestheticised chimney of the Edgbaston waterworks in Birmingham (4; c.1870), one of a pair of water towers that were thought to have inspired the title of J. R. R. Tolkein’s second book in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yet, perhaps nowhere was Rawlinson’s dream more closely realised than in Leeds’s Tower Works (5), where the steel pin manufacturer T. R. Harding brought together fine architecture into the industrial workplace in the form of three extraordinary chimney-towers: the first (right; 1866) based on the 13th-century Lamberti tower in Verona; the second (centre; 1899) inspired by Giotto’s 14th-century campanile for the Duomo in Florence; the third (left) a 1920s re-imagining of one of the numerous medieval defensive towers of San Gimignano in Tuscany.

5. Tower Works, Leeds showing the three chimneys based on Italian towers.

5. Tower Works, Leeds showing the three chimneys based on Italian towers.

6. Candle Tower (2009), Leeds, next to the Tower Works.

6. Candle Tower (2009), Leeds, next to the Tower Works.

This gathering of chimney-towers in Leeds’ Tower Works demonstrates that structures – even those with an essentially utilitarian purpose – can dream. For what else are these chimneys but towers brought into a new constellation of meaning, assembled from the fragments of the past, and born in the imagination? And even today, when our own megalomanic skyscrapers seem to abolish the kind of verticality that chimes with human being, there’s still a sense in which imagination still plays a part in the conception of some of our tall buildings: whether the Candle Tower (6, right; 2009) near the Tower Works (nicknamed the ‘leaning tower of Leeds’), or Manchester’s Beetham Tower (7, right; 2006) – a structure that, despite its sleek modernity, nevertheless still answers the age-old appeal of the tower, as seen in its early Victorian forebear on the Rochdale Canal (7, left).

7. Beetham Tower (2006) next to a early Victorian factory on the Rochdale Canal.

7. Beetham Tower (2006), Manchester, next to an early Victorian factory on the Rochdale Canal.





Tallinn,Tarkovsky and Stalker

13 09 2011

1. The Flora chemical factory with the old city of Tallinn behind

Stalker, released in 1979, is a Russian science fiction film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s an enigmatic film, almost devoid of special effects and characterised by long takes and even longer silences, punctuated by strange images and philosophical dialogue. It’s creation was a troubled affair – the original film was damaged beyond repair and it had to be reshot by Tarkovsky and his crew. In addition, the setting of the film – mainly abandoned but toxic industrial powerplants – was said to have contributed to the early deaths of many of the film’s creators, including Tarkovsky himself.

2. The entrance to the Zone in Stalker

3. The old Flora chemical factory, Tallinn

Much of the film was shot in and around Tallinn – today, the capital city of Estonia, but back then still part of the Soviet Union. The city is famous for its remarkably well-preserved medieval core; but Tarkovsky used another aspect of Tallinn for his film, that is, the effects of the Soviet policy of rapid urban industrialisation. Beyond the old city walls, the Soviet city remains – brutally modernist tower blocks infilled with countless brick and red-and-white striped chimneys. One of these – part of the Flora chemical factory – looms aggressively directly in front of the church towers of the old city (1 & 3). This was the site chosen by Tarkovsky for the heavily-fortified entrance to the Zone – a restricted area in Stalker where supernatural forces are at work (2). The factory has now been taken over by an artists’ collective, who use its decaying spaces for exhibitions, studio space and cultural events that draw on the iconography of Stalker in relation to contemporary life in Estonia.

4. The abandoned terraces near the harbour in Tallinn

5. The empty hall inside the terraces

I came into Tallinn on a high-speed ferry from Helsinki, landing at a makeshift harbour and walking into the old city via the chemical factory. Between these two spaces lies a vast, concrete wilderness – an enormous abandoned multi-level terrace that links the sea with the city centre, but which has long since been abandoned to the elements (4). Inside the concrete walls is an enormous empty hall without any obvious function (5). As enigmatic as any of the locations in Stalker, it is an inexplicable place: was it built long ago in preparation for a flood of visitors that never materialised? Or a relic of Soviet propaganda now left to rot? Whatever the explanation, it’s now a place where people wait to board the ferry back to Helsinki and viewing platforms have been recently constructed to mitigate this waiting time (6). In this space, the spirit of Stalker still resides – its meaning is incomplete, leading to reverie, which is only heightened by the activity of waiting.

6. Viewing platform on one of the terraces








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